Not so long ago, Britain and the rest of Europe were rejoicing in America’s presidential choice of Barack Obama versus John McCain. The hated George W Bush would be gone and a sensible, smart leader would inhabit the White House again - whoever won. The Economist put McCain and Obama on its cover and declared, ‘This is the most impressive choice America has had for a very long time.’ Praise the Lord.
Then along came Sarah Palin, the lightly travelled Christian evangelical McCain chose as his running mate. Much has been made of the soap-operatic side of the governor of Alaska: the caribou-hunting, mooseburger-eating mother-of-five who drives herself to work, her beauty queen past, her pregnant, unwed 17-year-old daughter. What really matters is what she believes in and why McCain selected her. On both counts, much of the world outside America will not be pleased.
Palin describes herself and her family as ‘typical’. But to most of the planet, she’s an exotic. She’s a fundamentalist Christian. She advocated teaching creationism alongside evolution in Alaska’s schools. Her right-to-life convictions extend to stem cell research, which she opposes.
She’s opposed to gay marriage. She’s about as right as a Republican can get. She does not believe human behaviour is responsible for global warming. She supports home schooling and other alternatives to traditional state education. She’s anti-gun control; for example, she supports ending the ban on handguns that has existed in Washington DC for more than three decades.
Palin has said she would not force her views on others. Indeed, she kept a campaign pledge not to push as governor for mandatory inclusion of creationism in her state’s school curriculum. But she cannot pretend always to divorce her personal views from matters of state and governance. In praying that a natural gas pipeline would be built in Alaska, she used traditional evangelical language. She believes the US mission in Iraq is a ‘task that is from God’.
The McCain who chose Palin is not the McCain familiar to many of us outside the US. The McCain we know is a worldly, well-informed, straight-talking Republican who’s a likeable fixture at policy talking shops in London and Berlin, a man at ease with men and women of international affairs across the world. His views do not always coincide with his chums in world capitals - eg, his hawkishness on Iraq - but he’s long been seen as a safe and pragmatic pair of hands on big issues like trade (he’s a free trader, more so than Obama) and the environment (unlike Palin, he accepts that human behaviour is a contributor to climate change).
The McCain who chose Palin is someone who found himself in a political panic. In the weeks before the Democratic national convention, the polls put Obama and McCain head to head. Predictably, Obama got a boost after the Democratic lovefest in Denver. But even discounting that, at a time of widespread disaffection with Bush and the Republican party more generally, the inertia of public opinion heading into an election seemed to favour Obama. The natural inclination of many of McCai n’s advisers was to turn to the base, the far right wing of the party, much of it evangelical, whose money, hard work and get-out-the-vote fervour could make a big difference on 4 November.
Under other circumstances, McCain might have gone for somebody more like himself - Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a pro-Iraq war Democrat-turned-independent, or former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, chosen by Bush to be the first director of the Office of Homeland Security after 9/11. But Lieberman, who is Jewish, and Ridge, a Catholic, are supporters of abortion rights. McCain occupies a kind of middle ground: he’s in favour of overturning Roe versus Wade, the Supreme Court decision upholding a woman’s right to abortion, but he’s against prosecuting women who have abortions. If how to appeal to the base was the question, neither Lieberman nor Ridge was the answer.
Palin was. Her inexperience is easily ridiculed, especially when Cindy McCain, John’s wife, comes along and tries to portray Palin as a keen Kremlinologist (’Remember: Alaska is the closest part of our continent to Russia. So, it’s not as if she doesn’t understand what’s at stake.’) Palin’s message to the world is much like the one she delivered last Wednesday to her detractors in America: ‘Here’s a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I’m not going to Washington to seek their good opinion - I’m going to Washington to serve the people of this country.’
The message of her candidacy, the message of McCain’s choice, is equally plain. America’s religious right is back. In fact, despite all the wishful thinking riding on the departure of Bush, the religious right never really went away.
· Stryker McGuire is a contributing editor of ‘Newsweek’ and editor of ‘International Quarterly’.